On November 13, the deputy commissar of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Vice Admiral Ma Faxing, committed suicide by leaping from a building at a naval complex in Beijing. In the same month, at least two other important officials took their lives. They were among the more than forty officials who have killed themselves since January 2014, more than double the total in all of 2011.
These numbers are small compared to the number of officials that killed themselves during the Cultural Revolution (estimated to be 100,000-200,000) or the total suicide deaths each year in China (estimated to be 287,000). Still, the rapid increase in instances of officials who commit suicide is occurring when the overall suicidal rate in China has seen a significant drop since the 1990s. A New York Times report found that the suicide rate among this segment of the population—6.9 per 100,000 officials—is 30 percent higher than the overall suicide rate in urban China.
What accounts for the spate of suicides by Chinese officials? Given the lack of transparency in China’s officialdom, it is difficult to pin down any specific cause. Most of the suicide deaths were officially attributed to depression or high pressure. This is in sharp contrast to the views of the general public and China scholars, who tend to connect the deaths to corruption scandals.
Depression or high pressure might be factors behind the deaths of many Chinese officials, but they cannot fully explain the increase in suicides by Chinese officials in recent years—as early as 2005, a survey of 200 middle-aged government officials found that nearly 50 percent of them were “mentally unhealthy.” Indeed, of the thirteen officials who killed themselves in 2014 and for whom official explanations of the cause of death were available, only five were said to have suffered from depression or high pressure, and at least six of them were associated with corruption-related investigations. An examination of the suicide cases clearly pinpoints the impact of the anticorruption campaign launched by the new leadership (which took over in November 2012). During the period 2011-12, a total of forty officials reportedly killed themselves. But since 2013, at least eighty-eight officials have done the same.
The officially publicized suicide cases also suggest the growing extent and intensity of the antigraft investigations under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Between 2003 and 2013, for example, there were no reports of high-ranking military officials who committed suicide. But in 2014, in the span of three months two senior naval officers (a vice admiral and a rear admiral) jumped to their deaths. In addition, between August 2003 and April 2014, around three officials at and above the bureau and prefectural level killed themselves annually. Since April 2014, however, there has been a rise in both the frequency and the rank of official committing suicide. Within two and half months, more than ten officials at and above the bureau and prefectural level killed themselves.
As the new leadership gears up its antigraft campaign, officials are facing greater pressure, especially those who are already under investigation. Still, why do these officials throw away their lives so easily? One explanation is that the campaign put undue pressure on officials who feel they have no choice but to kill themselves to escape their distress. In most cases open to the public, officials appear to kill themselves without experiencing apparent coercion and duress. Another possible explanation is that the growing pressure associated with the campaign exacerbates the depression of some officials, leading them to commit suicide. But again, a majority of officials in publicized cases did not suffer from depression before they killed themselves.
A more convincing explanation treats suicide as a means to escape seemingly inevitable punishment. On the one hand, the antigraft campaign, with its unprecedented intensity and breadth, sends a strong signal to venal officials that this time they can no longer expect to be let off the hook. In a political hierarchy where cadres can only be promoted but not be demoted, being caught and sentenced to jail (or even death) for corruption would mean not only public humiliation but also the forfeiture of all titles and illicit gains. On the other hand, under the existing law once the guilty party dies, prosecution is terminated and the party no longer bears legal responsibilities. This presents an institutional opportunity for the corrupt officials. If they commit suicide, not only would they retain their rank and reputation, but their illegal gains would not be confiscated. Furthermore, by taking his or her own life, the individual official sacrifices for the greater good of other members on the same corruption chain, and the latter usually would take care of the victim’s family members. This “altruistic suicide” (as proposed by sociologist Emile Durkheim) therefore has the potential to undermine China’s anticorruption efforts.